The Silent Child is a 20-minute film which won an Oscar at the recent Academy Awards (for the best Live Action Short Film) which focuses on a four-year-old deaf girl named Libby who comes from a hearing family and who has not developed enough speech as she approaches school. The family brings in a ‘help’ named Joanne, who we are told in the descriptions is a social worker but appears to be simply a tutor, to try to improve her communication skills and she immediately begins teaching Libby sign language, of which she learns the basics quickly and begins to enjoy talking, playing and going to the park with Joanne. However, the mother gets cold feet and decides that it would be best for Libby to concentrate on developing her speech and cuts off her contact with Joanne. In the final scene, Libby is seen standing alone in the playground while other children play; Joanne stands across the fence and they sign “I love you” to each other. It finishes with some statistics about deaf children from hearing families and how many do not have any support when they go to school. The film can be seen here for the next few weeks and has mandatory subtitles.
The film was rather reminiscent of the TV series The A Word, about a young boy with autism. That series was set around a middle-class, rural English family and the same was true of this film. There was not as much time here, obviously, for family drama (I gave up on The A Word because it became more of a family drama than a drama about autism) but they got some in and it was key to the mother’s attitude: Libby’s dad wasn’t her dad, as Joanne found out by talking to an old lady she met by chance, and her real dad’s dad was deaf. The mother’s objection to sign language wasn’t rooted in the old debate about sign language making it possible for deaf people to communicate with each other but nobody else; she was more concerned about how much trouble it would be to fit learning sign language among all their other extra-curriculars; she also appeared resentful that her daughter was being taught something she didn’t know (at one point arguing with her husband about this woman coming in and telling such-and-such to her daughter) and would have to make an effort to learn. She shut Joanne’s objections down by telling her “you must understand, I have been a mother for a long time”.
The film’s central point was that deaf children needed support if they are not going to be isolated, and that if they communicate best using sign language, this should be facilitated, but the “Mum doesn’t always know best” message will strike a big chord with a lot of disabled people and I’m sure it will anger a lot of parents (although I have seen some eagerly recommending it). The sight of Libby being offered a chance to communicate with someone who understood her and then having it snatched away was very sad to see and will bring tears to a lot of people’s eyes, I suspect. Interestingly it makes no issue of government funding cuts as a reason why children are not getting the support they need, and as the reason in this case was the mother’s attitude, it might have helped to make this point in the words on-screen at the end. But it’s an important film, well-scripted and shot and it deserved that Oscar.
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